Life of a mature student – technologies in practice module

TM129 (technologies in practice), is the 3rd of my Open University IT modules, following TM111 and TM112. Actually, there are only 3 IT modules at level 1. Most of the other students did a solid module of maths, which would not have been my idea of fun! As the degree is for my own personal development and I’m on the open degree route, I chose something from the language faculty to finish off my first year. But more about that in another post.

This is my summary of the module from the October 2019 presentation. If you’re planning to study it in the future, there may be some differences.

The content

As with the other level 1 IT modules, the course is split into three blocks.

Probably the most interesting part for me was the networking block. Not all of the knowledge was new to me, but I found it useful to consolidate and build on what I knew already. The Cisco materials almost felt like PowerPoint slides, with very little text on each page, so I was forever clicking next. I’m one of those people who’d rather a solid block of text, but I know some students prefer the bite-size chunks. Anyway the information was well-structured and apart from a small part that was very Cisco-centric, the knowledge can be applied to networking across the board.

Robotics – I enjoyed exploring the social and ethical questions in this part in terms of how we use robots and AI, how it affects our life already, and how future developments might look. I thought it was interesting to look at some practical activities for programming a simple online robot, though I would have preferred it if we’d done some more tasks that weren’t so focussed on using the light sensors. This is useful for explaining other concepts, but a bit frustrating for any user who is blind or unable to distinguish colours. I think there are concepts that I can take from this block though and apply to other programming problems, so overall I felt that was useful.

Linux was new for me, so I was glad to have an introduction, especially as it focussed a lot on command line commands, (which is what, as a screenreader user, I would have had to do anyway) as opposed to using a graphical interface. In some ways we just skimmed the surface, but I think as an introduction it was easy enough to follow and understand.

The assessment

Things were a bit different this year because the final assessment was cancelled due to the coronavirus restrictions. I don’t really understand why, because it was all online, but that’s what happened.

On one hand it was quite nice not to have to write the final assessment, but I think a number of students wish the process had been explained a bit better. There was clear information about the fact that the assessment had been cancelled, but I hadn’t appreciated that the marks wouldn’t only be based on my previous work. My overall average ended up lower than the average of my previous marks. Apparently this was because the final averages were adjusted down due to the fact that historically students had done worse on the final assignment. I was ok, but anyone on a grade boundary may not have got the final grade that they were expecting.

So I can’t talk about the final assessment, but the other 3 were written tutor marked assignments.

The part that worried me most was one assessed activity within the networking part. I hadn’t realised that there would be a timed assessment that contributed to my overall mark. My biggest fear was that I would run out of time, but I didn’t and my worries were unfounded. I needed to make sure I’d revised properly, because it’s not like the project work where you can take as much time as you like to double-check everything, but on the day I did end up with time to spare. The worse thing you can do is see something you’re not sure about, panic, and then forget everything else you know!

Accessibility – studying the module as a blind student

The main take-away for me is that I did it, as someone with no vision. Yes, there were some challenges, and yes, I did need some sighted assistance at times. But this module was enjoyable for me and I learned a lot.

All of the module materials were provided as downloadable or online copies – in fact I think everybody was reading the materials online. There was also a book and a DVD. I sourced my own copy of the book, though an alternative was available. The DVD material was also available from the module website, so it was just as easy for me to get it from there.

I noticed some people grumping about the lack of textbooks on the forums, but I think no obligatory printed textbooks is a step in the right direction – think of the trees!

The Sisco materials in the networking block were accessible, and even included some image descriptions. Unfortunately the level of accessibility was a bit inconsistent in terms of the practical learning activities – many of these involved dragging things around with a mouse and had no accessible alternative for keyboard users. I focussed on the theory as learning the concepts were more important to me, and the exercises were just to supplement the learning.

The Packet Tracer software also caused some problems in terms of accessibility, and a sighted assistant was needed to assist me with these practical parts.

Despite these challenges, I found this block the most interesting.

Having said that, if the OU continues to buy in content or work in partnership with other training providers, it needs to ensure that those other organisations are held accountable to the same accessibility standards. I feel there is some room for improvement here as I did encounter some missing image descriptions in the 3rd-party materials.

The robotics software did work surprisingly well with Jaws (my screenreader). However, some of the practical tasks relied quite heavily on being able to see in order to assess the outputs of the programmes, so again, some sighted assistance was required.

The Linux part didn’t pose any accessibility problems.

Final thoughts

Out of all the IT modules I’ve done so far, I enjoyed this one and TM112 the most (OUBuild ruined TM111 for me, but there is other interesting material in there)!

The module gives you an introduction to three distinctly different areas, particularly useful for those who are still deciding which route to take when it comes to their level 2 modules.

My tutor was helpful, always replying quickly and being available to discuss issues relating to accessibility or alternative ways to meet the learning outcomes.

Adobe Connect continues to be an accessibility nightmare for me as a screenreader user, though that has nothing to do with TM129 as such, and I still prefer this to face-to-face learning. Tutors did what they could to help me, either answering questions or making slides available in advance for me to access.

I do wish though that the Open University would use a more accessible conference platform.

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